On January 27th, 2017, 160 civilians were killed in an airstrike on a displaced persons’ settlement in Nigeria. The region was and continues to be notorious for the presence of the terrorist organization Boko Haram, which the Nigerian government has been tirelessly working to defeat. However, this attack did not come from the insurgents, but rather a Nigerian military air strike supported by the United States military. While this may have initially seemed like a tragic accident, this strike is only the tip of the iceberg for U.S. involvement in the region. To get the bigger picture, it is first necessary to consider the history of U.S. operations in Africa, beginning first and foremost with the establishment of the United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM.

Founded in 2007, AFRICOM encompasses the full range of the U.S.’ counterterrorism and counter-insurgency operations in Africa. These forces are intended to protect American assets, aid in peacekeeping, and help African governments with state security. However, unlike most American military operations, this campaign is largely hidden from the public eye, and even from Congress. In 2022, a group of five Democrat congressmen and women filed an official inquiry into the ongoing operations of AFRICOM after the airstrike came to light. Yet the Department of Defense was reluctant to answer, so reluctant in fact that they never responded to the inquiry. The U.S. Constitution explicitly grants Congress the capacity to provide for common defense as well as make rules and regulations for the military, meaning this lack of oversight is a bizarre development. While this is certainly not the first time the U.S. military has carried out clandestine operations, they are normally of much smaller scale. This begs the question: what exactly is the U.S. military doing across Africa, and why?

Through its military operations, the United States government is also pushing for rapprochements with governments in the region. Notably, the Somalian president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, agreed to let U.S. forces inside his nation to aid with state security. This deal aligns with the United States government’s current view of the pressing issues of the region. Instead of dealing with hunger, poverty, and economic underdevelopment through humanitarian means, it instead views these issues as a security matter requiring a military response. The deal with the Somali government would give U.S. drones a carte blanche on the use of force in regions controlled by the local insurgent group – Al-Shabab. Therefore, it would not be hard to imagine an increased U.S. military presence giving way to greater overall American influence in Somalia and nearby regions.

It is no secret that China, the United States’s most significant geopolitical competitor, is also moving in on Africa in a bid to expand its influence, mostly through economic means. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese government and state-owned corporations are investing heavily in African infrastructure and business. The mass movement of Chinese labor and capital also invites a Chinese military presence, to prevent any unforeseen complications. A situation reminiscent of the Cold War then emerges, with two rival powers from opposite corners of the globe vying for influence and allies in a nominally neutral region.

Furthermore, when not directly intervening in countries, the United States military still has a role through its connections with foreign militaries. As part of its partnerships, the U.S. military conducts joint exercises with soldiers from other nations. These trainings are supposedly intended to strengthen counter-insurgency measures, equipping recipient militaries with necessary tools and skills to deal with rebel and terrorist groups. However, the soldiers that participate in these training sessions have a track record of becoming insurgents themselves. The 2022 coup d’état in Burkina Faso was led by one such soldier, former Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandoago Damiba.

Damiba was a career military officer in the Burkinabé military where he led counter-terrorist operations against Islamist groups in the country. During his career, he attended seven different training courses conducted by the U.S. between 2010 and 2022. Before the coup, Damiba was part of a small rebel group intent on overthrowing the democratically elected Burkinabé president at the time, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. While this may seem like a coincidence, an anomaly in an otherwise benevolent partnership, he is not the first U.S.-trained insurgent in Africa, much less in Burkina Faso. In fact, the West African nation underwent a revolution in 2014, led by Lieutenant Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida, another U.S.-trained soldier. Yet, in an ironic twist, Zida’s new government itself was overthrown by a different American trained officer, General Gilbert Diendéré.

For many, this sort of interference might appear to be the result of a post-9/11 security concern, often referred to as “the War on Terror”. Certainly, these actions have increasingly entered the public eye since and during the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, yet they have a history longer than most realize. As far back as the Cold War years, the United States was already employing nefarious tactics to gain influence and intervene in the internal politics of other countries.

Africa is not the only region in the Global South where the United States has interfered in. From 1975 to 1989, U.S. intelligence agencies and military conducted multiple operations and clandestine efforts in South America and Asia. The most infamous of these programs was Operation Condor which entailed the U.S., as well as France, aiding and abetting campaigns of state terrorism across Latin America. The stated goal of the operation was to eliminate Marxist subversives, but the methods employed resulted in mass killings, kidnappings, and assassinations. Augusto Pinochet, the infamous former dictator of Chile, came into power from a U.S.-supported coup d’état. The Brazilian military dictatorship from 1964-1985 was supported by American agents. Furthermore, the United States engaged in similar actions in Indonesia whose right-wing regime at the time was undergoing a campaign of mass executions of suspected leftists which resulted in the deaths of an estimated one million people. The CIA both provided information to the Indonesian government and helped finance the death squads which carried out the campaign of state-sponsored terror. These instances of regime change suppressed civil liberties and democratic principles, all while being supported by a purported guardian of democracy worldwide. While some of these countries are fortunate enough to have left this tumultuous period behind, the U.S. continues to propagate this sort of interventionism, only in Africa now.

Current U.S. President Joe Biden declared that with the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, the “forever wars” were over. It is clear now though that this is not the case. Contemporary U.S. engagements in Africa may not be termed ‘war’ by policymakers in Washington, but they are just as destructive to the locals nonetheless. Whether it be to curb the ambitions of China in Africa or to expand its influence, the United States will keep engaging in interventionist policies for the foreseeable future when its defined national interests require it. The U.S. might be spending billions under the guise of shared security, but it is ultimately the innocent civilians who pay the greatest price–their lives.

Written by Reed McIntire; Edited by Jason Kancylarz

Photo Credit to: Onno Blaauw and Avel Chuklanov, Unsplash and senivpetro, pixabay